Our adventure started in Havana, Cuba.
It was April 3, 2015. Darren and I both joined an eight-day tour organised by Cuban Adventures (indeed).
I arrived the night of the 2nd of April; when I finally reached my accommodation it was already too late to join the rest of the group for drinks and the jet lag was kicking in. Although, the excitement of finally being in Cuba made me go out anyway and explore the neighborhood of Havana Vieja.
The streets were dark and very few yellow lights lit the dirt roads. There was a good coming and going of people, chatting loudly as if it was midday. I decided to have an aim to my wandering and picked the restaurant where I knew the group had dinner a couple of hours before. Mostly I wanted to interact with people and ask questions in Spanish. Directions seemed a good ice-breaker. I felt safe, more worried to get lost than anything else. I did avoid interacting with men though, just in case. The women I talked to warmed me up with their smiles. They all tried to help me and when I finally gave up and I was indeed lost, one of them walked me home and we chatted all the way. That’s all I wanted (without the being lost part).
The minivan came to collect me at the casa particular (the cuban version of a b&b) where I was staying. The group was awesome, we were all in the same age range, two Australian cousins, two English friends, two Canadian sisters, another Canadian girl on her own, me and of course, Darren, the only male of the group (besides our guide and the driver). A lucky man.
We started the tour going straight to Trinidad, where the Easter celebrations were held the day after. From there it was the turn of Cienfuegos, Vinales, Santa Clara and Bay of Pigs.
We eventually got back to Havana on the 8th day of the tour, after days and nights of walks and dances in drowsy, laid back villages. This was where all the buzz happened; and unfortunately also throngs of tourists.
We finally had a tour of the city. Havana seemed even busier this time around. There was a sense of decay in the surroundings that contrasted with the life and pride that everyone seemed to carry. I didn’t ‘blend in’ like in my first night, when I didn’t carry anything with me, I spoke Spanish and I looked like I had a place to go to. I was now with another seven English speakers and we had cameras and bags, and money. We meant money. Everything came with double the price and only in CUCs ($1 value) rather than Cuban Pesos (circa $0.24).
Compared to the other places we visited people seemed to be wilier and craftier, unhappy with their government salary and willing to make some extras.
- Bring plenty of water with you. There is sometimes shortage of it in the shops, so it’s also good to have a bigger container of water at home.
- Do not drink tap water or wash raw vegetables with it. Check that ice in your drinks comes from enclosed packages.
- Even with all the precautions you will probably end up having a few ‘Cuban moments’ (as we call them), bring Imodium or similar with you.
- Do not go around with lots jewelry or expensive stuff; Cuba is very safe, but it still not good to show off wealth.
- At every show you will be asked for tips so always have some small cash with you.
- Do not trust a driver’s ‘shortcuts’ when you are paying transport on the meter. To be safe agree on a price before boarding.
- Do not allow hustlers around to blind your appreciation for the genuine goodwill of most Cuban people. Smile and be open to talk to people. ‘Jineteros’ (hustlers) are usually very recognisable.
- Take lots of light clothes. If you like dancing you’ll suffer the heat even more!
- Do not buy Cuban cigars on the street and do not buy them from farmers either unless you want to use them within a few days.
Calle Obispo had many shops and hotels.
One thing that you can’t miss out in your tour of Havana Vieja (Old Havana) is Calle Obispo which links the Central Park with Plaza de Armas. It is for pedestrians only and has a bar with live music and shops. You can find water and a bank, you’ll need them both eventually. Shortages of water are frequent so if you see big bottles for a good price, you should definitely stock up.
Plaza de Armas is another place I loved. Before 6pm there are lots of stalls selling mainly posters, music and books.
We also witnessed a sort of parade of street artists with wonderful costumes showing off around there.
Art is very diffused and vibrant. From murals to little studios on the streets, to whole neighbours like Muraleando you can find so many styles. Near Plaza de la Catedral we found a couple of streets where painters exhibited their work.
Wanting to see the whole spectrum of Cuban art we also went to the Museo National de Bella Artes, which I’d certainly recommend, especially the national section exhibiting more than 1200 works including paintings, sculptures and sketches.
If you are looking for some museum showing the Cuban history then the Museo de la Revolución is a good option. The building itself is interesting, being first used as the Presidential Palace has Tiffani beautifully ornamented interiors and you can also find bullet holes on the walls from an assassination attempt to Batista.
Rooms are divided chronologically, from the colonial period to the modern days. Don’t miss the ‘Cretins Corner’ which makes fun of Batista, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
The Cretins Corner
Parque Central is the epicenter of Havana Vieja. It is surrounded by hotels of historic importance like Hotel Inglaterra, the interior of which boasts elaborate ironwork and patterned tiles.
Another hotel in the area is the Hotel Parque Central, where you can buy good cigars; we were recommended not to buy them from street sellers.
In Parque Central you can also rent a tour in vintage American car for a circuit (check out our story on Cuban cars). We wanted to go to El Vedado so we bargained a $25/hour drive there instead of a tour.
We arrived in the Vedado going through the Malecon, which is basically a seawall delineating the boulevard along the Atlantic shoreline. During the day it can get quite hot as there is no shade, but it comes to life at night with friends drinking rum, couples making out, and prostitutes.
The Malecon stretches for about 8km, but at halfway you can find the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, famous for having hosted many eminent actors and writers.
At about 20 mins car journey from Parque Central, the Havana Miramar Fundación de la Naturaleza y el hombre museum was a fascinating little museum, displaying many varied artifacts collected from the Amazon in the ’80s by the anthropologist Antonio Núñez Jiménez. It also hosted one of Cuba’s largest photography collections.
The lady at the entrance was lovely and guided us around. We offered her a tip, but she refused them and warned us about taxi drivers exploiting us. Too late for that, but it was nice anyway.
In the Vedado area there is also Plaza de la Revolucion, which being the largest in Havana hosts the major celebrations such as May Day.